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Joey Wendle is quietly proving he belongs with the Rays

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Wendle’s 141 wRC+ and so-far plus defense could see him lock up second base

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Chicago White Sox Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Acquired from the A’s in December of 2017 for PTBNL, C Jonah Heim, Joey Wendle plays second base for the Tampa Bay Rays, and he’s been one of the most solid parts of the team thus far in 2018 to very little fanfare. At the time he was acquired, Rays General Manager Erik Neander had this to say about Wendle,

“Grinder-type player,” said Neander of Wendle, who was acquired for a player to be named or cash considerations. “High baseball IQ, left-handed hitter, infielder that has a history of hitting. Part of what has drawn us to him over time is ... [he is] really a high-quality defender and is about as reliable as they come.”

And that quote pretty well covers what we’ve seen from Wendle so far, although if anything, he may be surpassing expectations.

Over the last few days, MLB has been buzzing with news of highly touted AL East prospects making their debuts. Lourdes Gurriel Jr joined the Toronto Blue Jays and had a great first day on Saturday, while Gleyber Torres joined the New York Yankees and had an uneventful start.

While their status warrants attention when they get called to The Show, Wendle’s start to the season should be noted in a much louder way.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Joey Wendle: Among Second Base and Rookie Leaders

What drew thoughts of writing this article was simply looking through who produced the most among peers at respective positions within the Rays lineup.

Although the sample size is definitely still super small, we have enough information at hand now to see who’s off to the better starts in MLB, and Wendle ranks among the very best at second base.

Here’s what he’s managed among second basemen thus far (min 50 PA, courtesy Fangraphs),

Joey Wendle Stats Among 2B

Stat Performance Rank among 2B
Stat Performance Rank among 2B
AVG 0.304 7th
OBP 0.385 8th
SLG 0.482 8th
OPS 0.867 9th
ISO 0.179 11th
wOBA 0.378 9th
wRC+ 141 8th
BB% 10.8 % 12th
SO% 23.1 % 27th
Spd 5.9 2nd

From being ahead of someone like Jose Altuve in wRC+ to being ahead of Robinson Cano is SLG, Wendle’s been consistently among the top 10 in most categories among 2B and as important to the Rays lineup’s success as a result.

But just how well is Wendle hitting? Initially shielded from left handed pitching in a second base platoon, Wendle has now seen a southpaw 14 times in 2018, and has 5 hits (1 3B), 2 BB, and only 4 SO to show for it.

So is it luck (as in high BAbip - currently .390) or is he just knocking the cover off the ball? You be the judge based on his batted ball statistics so far:

  • Soft%: 14.3% (9th)
  • Medium%: 45.2% (19th)
  • Hard%: 40.5% (8th)
  • Opp Fld%: 33.3% (3rd)

These statistics point to Wendle hitting the ball very hard, and all over the field as well - which negates the use of any shift against him. And that’s important when you are 3rd in GB% at 64.3 % and 6th in GB/FB at 2.45.

All-in-all, among 2B, this is an impressive performance and one that improves on Logan Forsythe’s performance through as many games in 2015 - to provide a direct comparison. One major difference is Forsythe’s 23.4 % Hard contact%, which when you consider he hit 17 HR that season indicates the potential power output Wendle could managed if he hit more fly balls and fewer grounders.

More of this?

Let’s remember that although he’s just about to turn 28, Wendle still qualifies as a rookie. So how does he compare to fellow rookies?

Joey Wendle Among MLB Rookies

Stat Performance Rank among Rookies
Stat Performance Rank among Rookies
AVG 0.304 3rd
OBP 0.385 5th
SLG 0.482 5th
OPS 0.867 5th

So Wendle is both among the top ten second base performers and among the top five rookie performers in MLB at the plate and has yet to get much - if any - coverage thus far among the majority of networks and analysts.

But that’s not true of all outlets, to be fair, as CBS Sports just recently noted how impressive Wendle’s performance has been after a cool period of time despite his usual placement in the lineup in their Fantasy write up:

He looked to be cooling down after going 3-for-22 (.136) over his prior seven games, but Wendle’s bat roared back to life Saturday. The 27-year-old now has a strong .288/.377/.481 slash line on the season, but his usual spot in the batting order -- 31 of his 52 at-bats this season have come while hitting sixth or lower -- has limited his production somewhat, leaving him with one homer, five RBI and nine runs through 18 games.

That begs the question of whether Kevin Cash is better off leaving him where he’s currently producing at a high rate or whether he should consider moving Wendle higher up in the lineup, possibly 2nd or 5th - where his high average, OBP, and SLG can be slightly more productive?

Tough call.

But knowing this, you do begin to wonder if it’s Wendle’s defensive abilities that are holding him back from getting more attention. Does he lack range? Is he making errors? Well, here’s what he’s done as compared among other MLB second basemen.

We’ll use the standard defensive stats, and throw in UZR/150 for fun as well:

Joey Wendle Fielding Among (vs MLB 2B)

Fielding Stat Performance Rank
Fielding Stat Performance Rank
Errors 1 NA
RngR 0.7 4th
OOZ 9 12th
UZR/150 3.6 11th
DRS 3 2nd

Well, that’s still impressive, and it only adds to the fact that Joey Wendle should be noted much more frequently as having a major positive impact on the Rays season thus far.

None of this should be too much of a surprise to the Rays brass, as they traded for Wendle for good reason and his spring training was one of the better ones on the team, as noted by Kevin Cash.

Through 2018’s spring training, Wendle hit .327/.386/.558, good for a .944 OPS (led Rays regulars) and not too far off from what he’s managed so far early in the season. And that helps make what he’s done so far even more impressive and notable, as it shows us a lengthier period of steady performance in 2018.

Joey Wendle: Predictions, Way forward

It’s impressive how much things can change in just a few weeks of baseball. Most Rays fans likely believed that Wendle was brought in as a place holder for some of their top prospects and that he’d be easy to relocate when that time came, and who could blame them when Steamer predicted the following for Wendle in 2018: .240/.283/.361 with .122 ISO, .277 wOBA and 72 wRC+

Compare that to what Wendle’s done above and you realize he’s earned a much more solid spot on the Rays than most anticipated.

It’s hard to imagine the Rays doing away with a second baseman that’s providing them with a 2 WAR or better performance that has gained momentum from the time the season began. Instead, it seems much more probable that they’ll take advantage of his performance and continue to find a role for him on this team.

Top prospect Willy Adames is heating up in Durham and just hit his first HR of the season, a grand slam off the Bull - no less, and will likely get promoted before mid-season. It’s possible the Rays cash in on an impressive first half from Wendle when that promotion occurs, but it may be more likely that they keep him around and have him remain part of the rotation at second base.

And although Adeiny Hechavarria provides some of the most stellar defensive abilities among SS in MLB, his 76 wRC+ - which is improving of late - so far also puts him in a possible position of being moveable if and when required, as he is on the last year of his deal. With his earning much more than Wendle this season, he may be the piece that the Rays prefer moving (if they move either).

That brings us to an enticing scenario - one that has both Wendle and Hechavarria available in a rotation with fellow hot-starter Daniel Robertson and Willy Adames at some point this season. This foursome could really provide the Rays with significant performances both on the field and at the plate, and a great on-field and bench balance for Cash to use.

Whatever happens this season, Wendle has earned a long look and should be someone that every takes note of going forward in 2018.